I got my first dog in 1998 and started to train him almost immediately. As a clueless little girl I was lucky enough to cross paths with smart and progressive trainers right away, so even if that was looooong time ago, Toby was spared from really harsh, old fashion training. Nevertheless, I find it really fascinating how far dog training has come since. It is smarter, kinder and more efficient than ever and the rewards have become essential part of it all. Back when I first started teaching seminars, I could probably earn my daily fee if I got paid a little something every time I told people to reward the dog. Today it is quite the opposite. People are usually quick to reward and generally show quite a lot of appreciation for what the dog is doing. Yet somehow that doesn’t always help the dog understand things any better. Don’t get me wrong, it is always nicer to see people interact with their dogs in a positive way rather than just leave them hanging, but many times it seems like more thoughtfully timed, placed and executed reward could significantly improve the learning process, eliminate stress and increase confidence of both the dog and his handler.
The two main things to consider when it comes to rewards are the value of the reward and the emotions it generates.
Every dog has different desires and ambitions when it comes to rewards. What your dog sees as valuable and therefore worth the effort is highly individual. It is true that most working dogs are selected to like food and toys, but not always to the same extent and order. So your dogs might prefer toys over food or the other hand around, or he might not be particularly interested in any of those thing, but the thing is – in order to influence your dogs behavior, you have to find things that mean something to him. What works against you in the training process are distractions and frustration of not understanding something in a learning process. Of course both those things are manageable as well, (at least most of the time), but one thing remains a fact – the training will only work if the reward you have to offer is more desirable and valuable to a dog than the whatever distracts or discourages the dog in that moment. It is not always easy to find something that really motivates your dog, but some people know what it is and still avoid using it for various reasons. Those can be purely practical (people not wanting to throw the toy because they spent too much time getting it back, or simply finding it easier to put treats in the dog’s mouth), or a consequence of a misleading information (“you can’t train agility until your dog is happy to play with toys”). Either way I have seen dogs not run to their full potential, loose interest or didn’t really care to listen to what the handler is telling them due to lack of proper motivation. And many of those times people had the right thing in the pocket all along, just didn’t know/want to use it. However rewarding is not as simple as just giving the dog what they want the most.
Different kinds of rewards evoke different kind of emotions in a dog, some excite the dog, and some will calm him down.
To some degree emotional response is generated by the reward itself, but delivery also plays an important role in how the reward is received. Throwing food and toys generates more excitement than static rewards and your attitude plays an important role as well. Why does it matter? Excitement can add extra value to the reward – more value means, the dog will try harder. More dynamic rewarding can also help you gain more speed if that is what exercise requires. But at the same time it can also be contra productive. When trying to get the dog to learn a new skill, it will take longer if you “distract” the dog with outburst of excitement and a long playing session after each click. The dog will have harder time remembering what he has done before + the excitement generated in rewarding phase will make it harder for him to concentrate on the task. It is also important thing to consider when dealing with behavioural problems – rewards with high emotional charge might not be very useful if the dog suffers from overexcitement or reactivity.
The next quite significant thing is the progression of rewards. The thing is – when we first start to train the dog, the things we ask him to do are fairly simple and easy to do. But over time the difficulty of the task increases (we are either asking for a longer duration, reliable performance despite distractions or we are simply teaching more and more complex behaviours). If we are stuck with the same reward over and over again, there will come a point where the dog will simply no longer consider worth it.
Would you tolerate more and more workload every month for the same pay check?
Having a wide range of slightly different rewards (this difference can be achieved by changing the type of reward, quantity, including your emotions and excitement or simply by delivery) can help keep your dog motivated and eager to try harder, knowing that it will lead to more/better rewards. I introduce this concept very early on in the training of a puppy. Although puppies clearly need lots of reinforcement and encouragement throughout the first steps in their training, I make sure I don’t use all my tools for the easiest behaviours. If every single little action is praised as if the pup just made an achievement of a lifetime, you will run out of options to reward the actual breakthroughs and impressive achievements accordingly. And that is not all. By throwing the best rewards and the most excitement at your dog all the time, you will desensitise the dog to it and it will loose its meaning. Getting genuinely excited about something the pup did is a powerful tool, but it can turn into a background noise if used too often and without real reason. Knowing that there is always a chance to get something more significantly increases the motivation and overall work ethics. Progression is also a great tool when you need to help the dog move from understanding something to doing it with full speed. Let’s look at running contacts for example. You often have dogs understanding their job perfectly in the first phase of the training – they are thoughtful and precise, but not fast. When trying to push for more speed, they get all excited and forget the criteria or are simply unable to do it at such a high speed. Having a big variety of rewards in between static food and a thrown toy can help you make graduate transitions, so the dog can figure out how to deal with speed and excitement.
And that brings us to the last, but not the least important element – the frequency. Back when I started, most people didn’t reward their dogs enough. Right now I feel like many people have the opposite problem. The thing is…
When we are trying to teach the dog something new the rewards serves not only as motivation but also (and even more significantly) as information.
Rewards help your dog navigate through the learning process and “solve the challenge” that the new exercise presents. Now… have you ever tried giving someone directions and the more details you gave out, the more confused the person became? The more you tried to explain every detail of the road, the more overwhelmed the listener become and in the end couldn’t remember a single thing so finally the outcome is not much different to what happens if you give insufficient information? Giving good directions is very much about choosing the right filter for your output. Knowing the landmarks and deciding on what is vital information and what will ultimately work only as a distraction.
Trying to teach a dog something is essentially not all that different from navigating someone – we are all trying to explain the exercise the very best we can and guide the dog towards the goal – perfect understanding of an exercise. Like with navigating someone, we can choose to guide them in different ways. Not giving sufficient information obviously doesn’t work well, because the level of frustration quickly rises to the point, where the dog looses motivation to cooperate and learn. But is rewarding excessively (and therefore giving too much information) going to help you avoid that?
My experience shows that that is not really the case. What happens is that when people reward the dog too often, they lover his capability to cope with frustration. Now before we go any further, let’s say a few words about frustration. Although the world generally has a negative connotation, I don’t think it is all-bad. The right amount of frustration combined with strong motivation is what powers progress and improvement, and our dogs are not all that different from us in that aspect. How we deal with frustration has a lot to do with our personality traits and temperament, but it is also a summary of all our past experiences. Coping with frustration successfully and productively is something that we can learn – and therefore also teach our dogs. But to achieve that, they have to learn that good things require some effort. If the rewards are delivered too easily it will give the dog impression that no real effort is required, so the absence of reward will only trigger absolute lack of interest or neurotic behaviours. So I like to challenge them a little very early on in training and allow them to walk away, shake it off and come back to try again. That can only be achieved by not setting the bar too low. Dogs need some time to think and process and the mistakes are important piece of information as well. If I keep the criteria so low, that the dog is practically unable to do a mistake, there is no way he can learn how to handle them.
Another common problem I see on the field is that some people are so afraid of being unfair to the dog and/or the dog loosing focus and motivation that they will reward no matter what happens on the course. Yes, I think it is absolutely right to reward the dog when you messed up the handling, but dogs make mistakes as well and if we reward them just the same, it is getting very hard if not impossible for a dog to learn to respond better. Not giving the reward doesn’t equal being mad on the dog or blaming it for the mistake. You can even talk to the dog with a friendly and excited voice and run back to where you want to re-start playfully to make sure the dog doesn’t loose the enthusiasm, but actual rewards are reserved for when the dog did the right thing. The more clear you are with your criteria about what to reward, the easier it will be for the dog to understand, and not having to guess will help him free himself from any doubt and stress.